Larnaca, Cyprus

As I mentioned recently, I’m going to start posting about some of the places I’ve visited between my longer Asia trips. One of the most incredible places I’ve been recently was Larnaca, Cyprus. Full disclosure: when I was staffed in London for six weeks this summer through work, I fully suspected I would travel Europe, and thought I’d head to Dublin, or Lisbon, or Glasgow. However, it turns out that despite being super close to London, all of those places are expensive to get to and expensive to spend time visiting (I may stay in five star hotels for work, but I travel on a cheap budget). So, I found myself, several glasses of wine in on a Wednesday evening, pursuing weekend escape options. And, through a wonderful new airline catering to Brits with a post-colonial mindset, a cheap flight to Cyprus emerged. Two days later, I jetted five hours into the amazing Aegean sunset alone, ready to visit someplace I’d only vaguely heard of.


I had to attach three photos – I believe the grassy one is Belgium (headed there in November, fingers crossed), the mountains are the Swiss Alps, and I’m certain that the sunset was over Greece (they made an announcement). The flight itself was beautiful. Have you ever seen Apollo 13, where Jim Lovell is talking about his time as a pilot, and when he considered ditching in the ocean, then saw the phosphorus beneath him, welcoming him to the wake of a big ship? Cyprus is similar – it’s a dark island, save for several beautiful enclaves of light, sparsely dotting the island as the plane approaches. It’s an incredible ride. Cobalt Airlines is a legitimate enterprise – and, although there was an aggressive spat between a Turkish and a Greek passenger (the two groups still fighting over rule of the island), it was a great flight. The most amusing part of Cyprus throughout my time there was the general confusion that I was visiting as an American, rather than as a Brit. At immigration, Brits basically skip the line due to their colonial legacy. I, of course, had to go through the process of scanning my passport, declaring my purpose for entering the EU, and clarifying my purpose of travel.


My taxi driver was equally confused – “you’re staying… in a local apartment? You know someone here?” No, of course. Thankfully, as a woman traveling alone, I’ve noticed that Airbnb helps you find a mother wherever you are (and by “mother” I mean everything from matronly women to best friends throwing a birthday rager despite your seven am flight the next morning). There are a couple reasons I appreciate this: first, someone will know if you don’t come home, and will alert authorities (I don’t party, unless its with local alcohol by myself in my host stay with their permission), second, you learn where it is safe to adventure, and third, you feel at home and are welcomed as such.


My host in Cyprus was amazing, and gave me a fantastic history of the town. She moved there in the late 80s from Yugoslavia, and found a niche of Yugoslavians seeking refuge from their political upheaval. Her family grew, so they stayed. She kindly greeted me with mint tea brewed from her rooftop mint plant and biscuits, and was excited to learn about my work in London, as her son had just received a job offer in England. She gave me several books to read during my stay, including a collected history of Cyprus, which I promptly and voraciously read in the bath before heading to bed on my first night. She was point blank about the house rules, and similarly point blank about the island’s politics and customs. I felt prepared to explore the following morning.


After wandering the town for an hour or so, I decided to play it safe and head to a cafe with a beautiful menu, just next to the open air farmer’s market in downtown Larnaca. I ordered a mint lemonade, a Cypriot coffee, and the chicken kebab. I was not disappointed. For the first time in my “Mediterranean” (read: Spanish, Italian, Greek, Israeli) travels, I understood what “Mediterranean” food was supposed to be (p.s., I think I just had tourist Israeli food when I went about ten years ago – I’d love to get back and taste some more). It’s so simple, and yet addictingly tangy and fresh. After lunch, I headed out to explore Larnaca.


First stop was the Church of Lazarus, the namesake of which you may recognize from the Bible. The story goes that Jesus resurrected Lazarus, who moved to Cyprus and lived out the rest of his life in Larnaca as the local bishop. The church was erected in his honor during Byzantine times, and he is buried in a chamber beneath. As a student of Byzantine and medieval history (my “fun degree”), this was a great find.


Inside, the church has incredibly beautiful features and Byzantine detailing. Out of respect, I didn’t grab photos of the tomb below, but it looked like most ancient tombs in modern structures- a sparse area, a couple earthen plots, and a few signs detailing the locale. I then headed to a similarly important sight for Muslim travelers, the medieval mosque and old city museum.


The mosque grounds were beautiful, and the view from the top of the museum wall was incredible. To enter the mosque as a woman, I had to wait for other women to process through and return the renter burkas lent to preserve our modesty. After putting on the robe, I entered the mosque and only took the one photo of the beautiful Mediterranean outside of this window. I was a little appalled to see the Brits casually and almost mockingly photographing the inside of the mosque and the several men enjoying the fan inside.


Outside the mosque, I walked down to the promenade along the Mediterranean. It is filled with vendors selling amazing candies – mostly Turkish delight, with some small niblets of other flavors available. There is also a beautiful pier.


After this, I decided to check out the local grocery store, a favorite pastime of mine in foreign countries. I love groceries stores for several reasons. First, to understand how much goods should cost. Second, to see what items are unique to that country. And last, to understand how much a drink should cost, and to see the local preferences. In this case, I was lucky to have a beautiful rooftop to enjoy beverages from, and a long weekend with which to enjoy a small purchase. I chose a 4 Euro bottle of Zivania, a traditional Cypriot liquor. Apparently, men used to drink this “fire water” when they’d come home from working in the fields; when they were out, their wives would use it to clean windows. Essentially the Cypriot Everclear, if you will.


At checkout, I asked how much orange juice I should use as a mixer. I had a half liter bottle, and the cashier suggested “that much for about 50 ml” (aka, 1/4 of the small bottle pictured above). I figured I was on vacation and that having far too little of the appropriate mixer wouldn’t be an issue. A tad afraid of my new purchase, I stashed it at home and headed out to dinner instead of trying it.


My favorite part of Cyprus was just exploring the streets; as I wandered to find dinner, I was amazed at the beautiful colors and textures of the city. There is a certain whimsicality to wandering narrow streets, and Cyprus delivers in full.


I ended up at a promenade-side restaurant, and ordered a mixed drink with the local brandy, and taramasalata. It looks pink due to the fish roe in it, and has an amazing salty finish that is incredibly addictive.


For dinner, I enjoyed a sampler of a couple different meats, with a salad and fries. I also met a kindly British man and his son, a Cypriot, who were at the restaurant to watch the football game and filled out my table. They were incredibly nice, and were also amused that I, as an American, had traveled to Cyprus. They were both  appreciative that I gave the small country a try, as am I.

That evening, I headed back to my beautiful rooftop, wandering down the narrow street until it converged at the convenience store where two men sat in the dusty parking lot, the spot where his wife had sold me a bottle of water earlier. I could hear singing and merriment from the little tavern next door to my host’s home, which went on until about two am every night I was there. The Zivania is strong, but not overwhelming. I read my book, happily feeling the Mediterranean rooftop breeze on my face until late.


The following morning, I headed back to the boardwalk to soak in the sun and explore the Turkish part of the city. As my host mother explained, the Turkish quarter has stayed the same since the 1970s, and is now under UN investigation and required to stay as it was. Although most of the island is under Greek control now, certain areas still have majority Turk populations and use the language/currency. Due to my time constraints, I didn’t travel to those cities, although some of my souvenirs had markings of if (i.e., “Don’t forget our occupied city of Famagusta”). My wanderings took me through many winding streets with beautiful architecture that otherwise wouldn’t have been preserved.


I ended the afternoon with a stroll along the boardwalk, soaking in the Mediterranean.


Of course, I had to have one more wonderfully fresh meal before ending my time in Cyprus, choosing another variety on the skewered meat and salad option.


My ending impression of Cyprus was one of hospitality: from my first taxi driver, who preferred to drive rather than let me walk the three houses down to my Airbnb, to my host mother and her continual interest in my experience and time in Cyprus, to the taxi driver who kindly picked me up on my last morning when all of the other taxi-for-hire companies refused a booking for airport drop off within 24 hours of flight time. Everyone was thrilled I had taken an interest in their tiny country, and I was thrilled to have sampled one small city from their many globally relevant historical and cultural sites. I’m so happy I took a chance and traveled to this beautiful island. Next time I’m in Cyprus, I’ll immediately go for more Cypriot coffee, and rent a car to drive around the island and see more of its beautiful sights.

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